NFL

Senior Bowl 2021: Mac Jones leads stars out to make big impression in Mobile

By Sports Desk January 26, 2021

In an offseason that has already seen the NFL Scouting Combine cancelled as the league continues to adjust to life amid the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 Senior Bowl takes on added importance.

This week's practices and Saturday's game in Mobile, Alabama will be the only chance NFL front office personnel get to see a host of the NFL Draft's better prospects on the field at the same time.

Plenty of members of the draft's elite are missing, but there will still be a large number of intriguing prospects hoping to impress the scouts in the stands with a strong week. 

Here we look at five such players and dive into some of the numbers that have made them worthy of close attention during proceedings in Alabama.

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

The Heisman Trophy finalist surpassed all expectations in his lone season as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback, stepping into the shoes of Tua Tagovailoa and leading Alabama to the National Championship, which they clinched with a stunning rout of Ohio State.

Jones demonstrated hugely impressive accuracy on downfield throws, a trait reflected in his yards per attempt average of 11.19, which led college football. Decisive and astute in reading the field and making decisions, Jones threw 41 touchdowns to just four interceptions, his TD-INT ratio of 10.25 second in college football behind Zach Wilson of BYU, a likely top-five pick in this draft. 

The challenge for Jones in Mobile will be to demonstrate to those in attendance that his success was not simply a product of the extraordinary amount of talent around him at Alabama and boost his hopes of going in the first round.

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Among the talent Jones had at his disposal in 2020 was monstrous running back Harris, who used his extraordinary physical gifts to put together a dominant campaign.

At 6ft 2in and 230 pounds, Harris possesses a remarkable blend of size, speed agility and power, which allowed him to rack up 30 total touchdowns this past season.

Showing a freakish ability to hurdle defenders in the open field, Harris was seventh in the country with 145.5 scrimmage yards per game.

Teams should not need much more evidence as to Harris' strengths, but with an impressive week at the Senior Bowl on the field and the interview room, he can make sure he comes off the board either late on day one or early on day two.

Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask will not feature in Mobile because of an ankle injury but one of his top targets will be on show.

A versatile receiver who excels as a pass-catcher and as a runner out of the backfield, Toney has proven himself a dynamic weapon in the open field.

He averaged 6.9 yards after catch per reception in 2020. Among wide receivers with at least 50 catches, that put him 13th in the FBS and fifth in the SEC.

His 485 YAC saw him ranked seventh in the FBS and fourth in the SEC among receivers, with his skills after the catch a key reason why he is regarded by some as first-round talent.

Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest

Surratt is unlikely to be taken as early as Toney having opted out of the 2020 season, but he should receive plenty of attention from teams looking for a big-play threat.

In 2019, Surratt led the ACC with 100.1 receiving yards per game, while he also caught 11 touchdowns.

Following a year out of the limelight, Surratt will aim to prove his talents as a downfield weapon can translate to the highest level.

Shaka Toney, EDGE, Penn State

You can never have too many pass rushers and Toney is among those who will be out to catch the eye of teams looking to bolster their reserves on the edge.

He recorded 20 sacks in four seasons with Penn State and did an excellent job pressuring opposing Big Ten quarterbacks in 2020.

Toney had 16.5 hurries, tied for third in the Big Ten, while his 21.5 total pressures were fifth in the conference.

Having put up those numbers for a poor Penn State team, the next test for Toney is to win his one-on-one battles with offensive linemen during Senior Bowl week.

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    Amari Cooper's prospective return for the Dallas Cowboys against the New Orleans Saints is in doubt, with the wide receiver still not 100 per cent fit after his positive coronavirus test.

    Cooper, who is unvaccinated, has missed the last two Cowboys games, both of which have ended in defeat.

    With three losses in their last four games, the Cowboys have gone from 6-1 to 7-4 and have seen their lead in the NFC East trimmed.

    Dallas will hope to get back on track against a slumping Saints team on Thursday, though they may have to do so without Cooper once more.

    Asked about Cooper, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said the former first-round pick is "still not feeling the best".

    "My gut would be if he doesn't practice tomorrow [Wednesday], I don't see him going to the game," said McCarthy, who himself will not be able to attend Thursday's game due to COVID-19 protocols.

    Cooper has made 44 catches for 583 yards and five touchdowns this season.

    He has been usurped as the top option in the Cowboys' passing game by last year's first-round pick CeeDee Lamb, who has 740 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his second season.

    Lamb returned to practice this week after missing last week's overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders with a concussion and expects to play at New Orleans.

  • Merseyside derby: Benitez desperate for a win in Liverpool reunion Merseyside derby: Benitez desperate for a win in Liverpool reunion

    Liverpool have two reunions with fan favourites coming up in the space of 10 days.

    While Steven Gerrard will bring his Aston Villa team to Anfield on December 11, Liverpool first make the short trip to Goodison Park to face the manager under which they enjoyed their best spell of the 21st century prior to Jurgen Klopp's arrival.

    Rafael Benitez was a contentious appointment, to say the least, when he replaced Carlo Ancelotti at Everton.

    After a strong start to his tenure at Goodison Park, a combination of injuries to key players and questionable tactical decisions have left Benitez under pressure.

    Everton are on a seven-match winless run in the league, their worst run since 2016, and a streak of just one victory in 10 matches across all competition. 

    It does not look pretty, the mood around each club could hardly be more different, and the last thing Benitez needs is a reunion with a fanbase that once idolised him and may well be singing his name again on Wednesday.

    Where did it all go wrong?

    Benitez has inherited a mess and Everton's director of football Marcel Brands and majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri must face scrutiny. The Spaniard, however, must ultimately shoulder part of the blame for the current malaise.

    Of Everton's Premier League managers, only Howard Kendall (in his ill-fated third spell at the club) and Walter Smith took fewer points than Benitez's tally of 15 across their first 13 league games.

    Everton went unbeaten in their three league derbies under Ancelotti, albeit they did suffer a 1-0 loss to very much a second-string Liverpool side in the FA Cup in January 2020.

    However, Ancelotti oversaw Everton's first derby victory since October 2010 when the Toffees beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield in February, ending a winless run at that ground stretching back to September 1999.

    That win at an empty Anfield inflicted a fourth successive home league defeat on Liverpool for the first time since 1923 and left the Merseyside rivals level in the race for Champions League qualification.

    Since then, Everton have won just nine of their 27 Premier League outings, losing 11, with Liverpool winning 17 of 26, only suffering three defeats. The Reds have scored 62 goals, 36 more than their city rivals, while only Chelsea's defence is stingier of sides to have been in the top tier for the entirety of that timeframe.

    If Evertonians hoped a corner had been turned in February, Klopp's team have proved they are still worlds apart.

    Similar derby records... differing approaches

    Speaking of Klopp, he has won seven Merseyside derbies since joining Liverpool in 2015, drawing five and suffering that solitary defeat. 

    Benitez will be the sixth Everton boss Klopp has faced, and the German holds an impressive record over his Liverpool predecessor, winning four of seven meetings, losing just once, when Napoli beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in the 2013-14 Champions League group stage.

    Liverpool also won their last three league games against Benitez's Newcastle by an aggregate score of 9-2. 

    This game will take Klopp onto the same amount of Merseyside derbies that Benitez managed as Liverpool boss. The former Real Madrid coach oversaw 14 meetings with David Moyes' Everton, winning eight and losing only three times. The Toffees' failures in this fixture have not been limited to the past decade.

    Across the last seven matches, Benitez's team rank 17th for possession (39.5 per cent), joint-18th for shots on target (21) and joint-20th for goals (four), albeit they have underperformed their expected goals (xG) value (7.58) – the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin has not helped this.

    Liverpool, on the other hand, have scored a league-leading 24 times in that time. Their xG of 16.4 also tops the competition, though it does suggest their finishing is above the standard that would be expected based on the quality of the chances.

    Their high press has been back at its best, with no team producing more high turnovers (sequences that start in open play and begin 40 metres or less from the opponent's goal) than the Reds' 145. Everton's 78 ranks above only Watford (74) and Tottenham (72).

    Another concern for Benitez will be Everton's tally of 101 high turnovers against. This ranks 11th in the league, but an issue for the Toffees all season has been an inability to keep the ball for sustained spells, even if it has been their aim to counter-attack. Their number of sequences of 10+ passes stands at 63 (16th). Liverpool's total is 220, placing them behind only Manchester City (283).

    Everton had just 22.7 per cent of the ball in their recent 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, allowing 17 shots. It is hard to imagine Wednesday's statistics turning out much differently.

    Injuries giving Toffees the blues

    Mohamed Salah came seventh in the Ballon d'Or voting but if he continues his current form into 2022 then he could be a shoo-in for next year's award. He has been sensational, scoring 17 times in 18 appearances across all competitions, and also leads the league in assists (eight). 

    Salah scores every 92 minutes, on average, while Sadio Mane has bounced back from his struggles last season with seven league goals.

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    While Liverpool's talismanic duo head into Wednesday's fixture in fine fettle, Everton are in the midst of an injury crisis that has exposed their weak squad.

    Richarlison should return from suspension and Abdoulaye Doucoure played at Brentford, but Calvert-Lewin and Yerry Mina remain out.

    Calvert-Lewin has been a huge miss but the influence of Doucoure and Mina should not be understated.

    With the pair playing, Everton have won three of six league games, averaging 1.8 goals for and 1.3 goals against, picking up 1.8 points per game. Without at least one of them, Everton have won just one of seven and averaged 1.7 goals against and 0.7 goals for. Their points per game drops to 0.6.

    Liverpool's last league win over Everton came on December 4, 2019, a 5-2 thrashing at Anfield marking the end of Marco Silva's tenure.

    Eight of Liverpool's last nine top-tier trips to Goodison have finished level but, unless Benitez can pull off an unexpected result, his fate may be similar. 

  • Merseyside derby: Stephen Warnock warning as Benitez and Everton target Liverpool scalp Merseyside derby: Stephen Warnock warning as Benitez and Everton target Liverpool scalp

    Liverpool have the class to "walk the game" when they tackle Everton in Wednesday's derby, and former Reds defender Stephen Warnock believes that would pile pressure on Rafael Benitez.

    A series of worrying injuries have hampered Everton in recent weeks, and they will be without Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Yerry Mina and Tom Davies for this midweek tussle.

    Warnock has sympathy for Benitez, whom he played under at Liverpool, but he feels the big game will only go one way unless Everton can raise their levels.

    A run of seven games without a win in the Premier League, their longest such streak since 2016, has seen Everton plummet to 14th in the Premier League going into the midweek round of games.

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    "Rafa's reign sort of started well, but then it's gone probably horribly wrong for him," Warnock told Stats Perform.

    "But you have to look at injuries to key players – Dominic Calvert-Lewin being injured, Richarlison was out for a long time, [Abdoulaye] Doucoure [was] a huge, huge miss in the midfield.

    "I look at Ben Godfrey and he's obviously suffered a little bit from long COVID. The effects of that have been tough on him.

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    "Well, I don't think man-management is his biggest strength, if I am being completely honest," said former England international Warnock.

    "Rafa is more of a tactical genius, if you like, he understands how to set teams up.

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    Benitez knows the significance of Wednesday's game and has called on his players to generate a spicy atmosphere, the sort that can allow underdogs to overturn expectations.

    In the 1980s, these were the dominant sides in English football, and although Liverpool remain serious silverware contenders, Warnock says the game remains a significant occasion in the city. 

    "The Merseyside derby will always be more special to me, purely because I grew up a Liverpool fan. I understand what it means," he said.

    "I come from a split household, where myself and my mum are Reds, and my dad and my brother are Blues, and that's the way it is quite a lot around Merseyside.

    "But come derby day, it's changed a lot in the last sort of five or 10 years. It has got a little bit more hostile, it used to be a friendly derby, but now that's changed.

    "And I love it. I love derby day. I think it's always a special occasion to play in those games, to be up the ground, to take it all in. Yeah, enjoyable games."

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